Living totally without worry will seem to most of us to be as impossible a task as living totally without breathing. We live in a world that is built on nervous energy. Worrying comes naturally to us! A pre-requisite to normal living as a human being in the twenty first century is to be aware of, burdened by, and afflicted with worries and concerns that we barely understand but that can lead us into living in some kind of anxiety-induced paralysis, diverting us away from the task of being fully alive to God, to each other and to ourselves.
We worry about the environment, about the legacy of pollution and destruction that we are leaving to future generations; we worry about the fragile peace of the world, and of the activities of those who are focused on bringing war and violence; we worry about health, both our own health and the health of whole nations; we worry about financial security, and how we will bring greater equity and stability to our financial systems. Most of us all, and perhaps more serious than all of these we worry about meaning – what the ultimate meaning and goal and point of life is all about. Fortunately for most of us, simply by virtue of our age, the haunting questions that accompany the grip of the classic Australian mid-life crisis have already passed us by, but that makes them no less real to many of the men and women who live around us. This is the worry in the middle of our lives that we have gone down the wrong road, wasted the time that we have had already, and are now seemingly powerless to change what will happen next for us. Living without worry is like living without breathing.
Yet Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear… strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” If we went home last weekend thinking that Jesus’ continued teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about loving our enemies was a challenge, then we might simply resign ourselves to believing that Jesus’ teaching is impossible having heard these words today. But as we sit with this text for a few moments at this Eucharist, and I hope as we reflect further on it in the days ahead, we will see something of the beautiful hope that Jesus sets before us.
Jesus, like those to whom he is speaking, knows what it is like to see the birds circling around in the sky, high up on the air currents in the Galilean hills, simply living in the moment. They are not burdened by all of the concerns of humanity, yet they mostly stay alive and live well. Jesus had also watched a thousand different kinds of flowers growing in the fertile Galilean soil, full of colour and exquisite beauty. One sweep of a gardening tool, one passing hungry donkey will expose their fragility, and yet their beauty, in the moment of their life is unparalleled. We don’t need to imagine what that array of colour and abundant life looks like, we only have to look at the gardens around this Church to see what Jesus was talking about. The miracle of sun and rain bringing new green life all around us.
Of course the problem with all of this is that we are not birds or plants. And one of the things that sets us profoundly apart as humans from animals and plants is that we are not only aware of the present, we are aware of the multiple dimensions of time. The past is always with us, and because we know that there will be a future defines our reality as well.
Our regional newspaper, the Maitland Mercury, is re-starting a feature entitled ‘Sincerely Yours’. Guest writers are invited to pen a letter to themselves when they were 16 years old preparing their young-selves for the future that will lie ahead of them. I don’t know whether I have been asked to write one of these because the editor thinks that I am in need of therapy, but it has been an interesting exercise that has grabbed my imagination over the last few days. What has become increasingly apparent is that it would not be very good for the Church or for me, if I were to honestly write for publication some of the things that I would really say to myself back then.
You might, just as a bit of fun, like to contemplate how you would respond to the task. When I was sixteen I was desperate to be older, now that I am nearly forty, if I am honest, I am desperate to be younger. Goodness me, would I have done things differently if I had known then what I know now. But I didn’t. This is the complexity that we face when we try to understand what Jesus is saying to us, when he tells us that because of God’s love for us we are chosen people who are set apart not to be defined by worry; because simply being able to remember the past, and simply being aware that there will be a future puts us in a different situation from the birds and the flowers, whose example he calls us to follow. So how do we respond, what practically can we do to fashion our lives around this teaching?
We are not called simply to have no interest in life in order to not worry about it. Neither are we, as people who have a greater sense than others in our wider community, that the world is filled with God’s purposeful plans, expected to sit back and say, “well, what will be will be.” Jesus spent his entire ministry building a new future (what he called the ‘kingdom of God’), and encouraging others to join him in the project. So it is unthinkable for Christians to conclude that Jesus calls us not to worry by simply sitting back and letting whatever happens happen around us and to us. As ever, in our journey with Jesus, the calling is a much more costly one, and it is a choice that demands that we make a decision about whether we will follow in his way or not.
The choice that Jesus offers us is this: whether or not we will live not in the past and not in the future but fully alive in the abundance of the experience of the present.
You will say to me, how can we do that when the past is always with us? And how can we do that without just letting the future (whatever it brings), just happen to us? And you are right. We cannot pretend that the past has not taken place, and for many of us the worries of the past remain with us. We cannot sleep walk into the future, or just let things happen to us, so the challenge of tomorrow is filled for some of us with worries as well. But with God’s help I believe that we can begin to fashion our response in a different way in a less worry-filled way.
The season of Lent, which begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, is the best time in the Church’s year for us to give some time and energy into sorting these things out. You will have seen in the latest edition of the Cross and Keys Newsletter, that we are suggesting seven special ways to help us to do something different over the next forty days.
The first is to be present at one of our very simple and yet profound Eucharists on Ash Wednesday. As we did last year, we will be offering these in the early morning, mid-morning and in the evening to ensure that everyone is able to participate, as we again have ash placed on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality and our utter dependence upon God’s love for us, to give all of the worries of the past and the future over to him. And next week we will take that ash to the nursing homes and to those who are shut in in their homes as well so that no one misses out. Please be with us on Ash Wednesday.
Secondly, this Lent we are suggesting that we should all re-double our commitment to be together at weekend worship. To remember that we come to the Eucharist not primarily as a social event, or because ‘we like this kind of thing’ but in order to worship the God who has created us, and on whom we depend utterly for our vitality. Please make a re-commitment to regular weekend worship this Lent.
Thirdly, this Lent we are inviting everyone to join us in prayer, as we return to the Lord. It would be wonderful if as a conscious reminder to ourselves that being in God’s family is not a one hour at the weekend activity if you would make a commitment to join us at one of the short services of Morning and Evening Prayer or at one of the mid-week Eucharists during this season, as a way of deliberately focusing on your relationship with God, or alternatively to deliberately set aside time at home to do this in your own way. The services are easy to participate in, and you would be most welcome.
Fourthly, on each Monday evening during Lent (beginning next week) we will be focusing on the final moments of Jesus’ life through a simple re-tracing of the stages of the journey of Jesus to the Cross here in Church followed by night prayers. We have not done this for some years, and we will only be doing it during Lent, so please be a part of it.
Fifthly, on Thursday evenings (again beginning next week) we are going to meet to grow together in our faith and refresh ourselves in our baptismal promises through a time that I will lead of reflection and discussion together. Please sign up today at the back of Church if you would like to join us.
Sixthly, for those of you who are computer literate, we are inviting you to sign up to an excellent resource that you can use at home. The details about how to do it are in the newsletter, but it consists of a short video each day in Lent to help you to be aware of God’s presence with you, which you can access through your computer.
And finally, in this holy season we will be inviting everyone to confidentially fill in a form which will then be held sealed and unopened by me, and my successors, in which you give guidance to your families about what you expect to happen when you die. Now I am going to say more about that in two Sundays time, but I want simply to mention today that that is part of the agenda ahead of us this Lent for those who are willing to participate, to prepare responsibly for our own funerals so our families will be helped by our guidance when the time comes.
We cannot leave the past behind, and we cannot live as if the future is not ahead of us. These realities bring us worry, and yet Jesus calls us to live lives without worry. This Lent we have the opportunity to do all that we can to resolve the worries of our past, and to place them into God’s hands; to focus on Jesus again, and to re-imagine our futures with him at the centre of them, as we are attentive to those things that prevent us from living joyfully in the present.
I pray for myself that I will not waste the opportunities of this holy season. And I pray too that that will be true for you as well.